We recently caught up with incoming CCCBA President Steve Steinberg over open-faced meatball sandwiches in Lafayette…
Tell us about your family.
My wife, Christine Chestnut, is also a lawyer practicing in Contra Costa County. She is Staff Counsel at Save Mount Diablo. We have two children. Our daughter, Nyana, is four years old, and our son, Kai, is one and a half. My parents live in Alamo and take care of our kids two days a week. My mother-in-law lives in San Rafael and takes care of our kids one day a week. We are very lucky to have so much help from our families.
Where are you from?
I was born in Walnut Creek. When I was in fifth grade, my parents moved to Alamo. I have lived or worked in Contra Costa all my life with the exception of college.
Are you the first attorney in your family?
No. My paternal grandfather was an attorney and CPA in New York City. He worked for the city for most of his career.
Where did you go to school?
I went to college at Princeton University in New Jersey, where I majored in religion, with a focus on Chinese religions and particularly Confucianism. When I was applying to law schools, I decided I had to get back to someplace warm.
I got into Arizona State right off the bat, and even found an apartment and attended orientation there. Then at the last minute, I heard from UC Hastings that I got in off the waitlist, and had to accept within 30 minutes and be back for orientation three days later. I did it, and thank goodness I did, because I met my future wife at orientation.
It looks like you graduated from law school in two years. How did you do that?
It was two and a half years. I was able to do that because during the first summer, I participated in a summer internship program and classes through Santa Clara University for credit in Hong Kong.
Tell us about externing with a Hong Kong judge.
The common law system is used there too, so researching cases is similar, and legal proceedings are conducted in English, though many witnesses and other participants require translation.
However, they have no tradition of law clerks working for judges, so when I showed up, the judge didn’t know what to do with me at first. It was a learning process for the two of us. I also externed in a barristers chambers, and worked with a barrister on a personal injury trial that had a successful result.
Did you wear a wig?
You had to be a barrister or judge to get a wig.
Does your work now involve Asian countries?
My firm, Vasquez Benisek & Lindgren, does a lot of work with Chinese and Taiwanese technology companies, as well as American companies, helping them with intellectual property disputes, including patent and trademark infringement and misappropriation of trade secrets, and other complex business cases.
Where have you worked?
I started at Morrison & Foerster in Walnut Creek, when it was above Spiedini’s restaurant. I worked there for a little over two years and then joined Morgan Miller Blair. My first connection with Morgan Miller Blair was playing on their softball team because MoFo didn’t have one anymore. Then about five and a half years ago, we started Vasquez Benisek & Lindgren.
How did you come upon your focus in IP work?
By accident. At MoFo, I worked on a wide variety of real estate, energy, intellectual property and antitrust litigation. Then at Morgan Miller Blair, I was initially doing a mix of real estate and IP, and other technology-related cases.
Over time, our technology and IP practice grew such that when we opened Vasquez Benisek & Lindgren, the focus was almost exclusively on intellectual property and technology litigation. That’s what I have been doing since then.
Do those cases ever go to trial?
We’ve had several big patent cases go to trial, including some in the Eastern District of Texas where many such cases are filed. I’ve spent time in trial in Tyler and Marshall, Texas. It’s a different world down there. But like most other practice areas, 95 percent of the cases settle.
What kind of things have you done on the Bar Board?
I have been on the Bar Board for six years. A big priority of mine since joining the Board has been trying to modernize communications with our members, our website, and the ways we publicize and take signups for events, advertise our lawyer referral service and publish the Contra Costa Lawyer magazine.
I was heavily involved with the redesign of the CCCBA website, which was an enormous amount of work for the Bar staff, me and other Board members. I think it came out really well, and it got good reviews in our membership survey last year. Traffic has grown every year since we launched the new website. People are finding out about and registering for events online.
I was also involved in hiring a communications coordinator for the Bar dedicated to handling our digital and print communications, advertising and putting together the magazine. That was a key change. Modernizing our communications has been a major part of connecting with younger lawyers, and I have participated in other efforts to better serve younger lawyers.
I have also chaired our delegation to the Conference of California Bar Associations, which has managed to get new laws approved by the conference, passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor in three of the last four years.
What’s next in terms of the Bar’s use of technology?
The new frontier is mobile devices—people searching our website, reading our email broadcasts and CC Lawyer magazine, and signing up for events on smartphones, iPads and other mobile devices. Mobile traffic on our website has grown from under 3 percent in 2011 to nearly 17 percent in 2013, and will probably continue to grow rapidly.
It is a trend across society, and lawyers are leading the way, with 90 percent of lawyers using smartphones. One task for this year may be making our website and other communications more mobile-friendly. What works well on a smartphone or iPad is different from what works well on a desktop computer.
What are your priorities as president?
We recently got input from section leaders about priorities for the coming year, and at our annual Board retreat we will be discussing them further. I am eager to hear what the Board has to say.
For me personally, communications continues to be a priority, and particularly working on our mobile communications. We can do a better job of helping people find out about our events and programs. Also, helping integrate younger lawyers into the profession and the Bar Association has always been a priority for me.
Give me an example of how young lawyers would be integrated.
In 2011, we had a Bar leaders/barristers mixer at Pyramid, with all the section leaders and the Bar Board and only barristers invited to attend. The idea was to have barristers learn what the sections and the Bar have to offer, while giving the sections the opportunity to recruit new members and new leaders.
In 2013, we had a “Meet the Bar” event at JFK law school, which was an opportunity for section leaders to introduce their sections to law students. I’d like more of those kinds of events.
Any other challenges you see in the coming year?
Lisa Reep will be stepping down as Executive Director after 20 years at CCCBA. I credit her with much of the success of the Bar Association since I have been involved. Ensuring a proper sendoff for her, and a smooth transition to the next Executive Director, will be important tasks.
Should the Bar Association speak out and take some stands on issues of the day?
Considering our roles as attorneys, we have an obligation to stand up for the legal system and the rights of the people who interact with that system. At the same time, we are a membership organization with members of different political views.
In terms of fighting for court funding, the right to a court reporter, the right to trial, we have played a role, lobbying in Sacramento and assisting our local bench in trying to deal with financial cutbacks. As to taking stands on more general political issues, the feedback from our members is mixed. So I think we should try to focus on issues that are specific to our role as lawyers.
We have done some good work on access to justice issues, and I would like it to continue in 2014.